Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Cleveland Orchestra – Strauss’s Daphne. Franz Welser-Most, conductor. July 18, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat K112, $40.)

Story.  During the summer Festival of Dionysos, Daphne’s childhood friend Leukippos reminisces with her about the past.  While he tries to show his love, Daphne rejects him. When Daphne rejects the special clothes for the occasion, Leukippos is persuaded to put them on by two maidens.  Apollo arrives disguised as a cowherd and is welcomed by Daphne; he is drawn to her.  The celebration begins, and the disguised Leukippos offers Daphne wine which she accepts. Apollo is jealous and forces Leukippos to reveal his true identity, killing him in the ensuing argument.  Daphne acknowledges her responsibility for the tragedy.  Apollo also asks for forgiveness and asking to love Daphne in the form of a laurel tree.  This “bucolic tragedy,” as Strauss calls it, ends with Daphne singing off-stage among the shimmering sound of the orchestra.

Daphne – Regine Hangler, Leukippos – Norbert Ernst, Apollo, Andreas Schager, Peneios (Daphne’s father) – Ain Anger, Gaea (wife of Peneios) – Nancy Maultsby.
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bassi, music director.

I of course know many people with the given name of Daphne, but never did try to find out the story behind that name.  A couple of years ago, while visiting Rome, we stopped by the Borghese Museum, and saw this statue of Apollo and Daphne (by Bernini, 1620s); the story there was Daphne tried to evade Apollo’s advance by turning into a laurel tree.  Evidently with these ancient Greek myths many versions of the same story exist, and it is probably futile to try to determine what the original says.  On paper the synopsis provided does not make a lot of sense, but I had no problems with the story as the work was performed – perhaps the story is only a part of it in an opera.

We visited Rome's Galleria Borghese where a Bernini sculpture of Apollo and Daphne was on exhibit.

One of the more notable differences is the role of Leukippos.  Many versions have him as a god who disguised as a woman to be near Daphne, and was forced to reveal himself when Apollo got everyone to go take a swim at a river.  The way it is told in the opera works too.

My seat is designated row K, but is in the eight row as they had to extend the stage to accommodate the large number of musicians.  In mid-June we saw another opera in concert performed by New York Philharmonic, and it didn’t prepare me at all for this group of singers.  With the exception of the mezzo-soprano (Maultsby as Gaea, and she was no slouch,) every soloist had a booming voice.  And it was really amazing that they could keep it up for the entire 1:40-hour one-act opera, one considered highly demanding of the singers per Playbill.  Apollo and Daphne are the main characters, and neither faded during the performance.  Indeed Schager sounded fresh when he sang the aria “Jeden heiligen Morgen” towards the end of the opera.  I sometimes wished the singers would soften things a bit, both to preserve their voices and to get some of the emotions across, but mostly sat there in awe of how well they did.  In many ways the large orchestra was no match for the singers.  In many instances the singers were accompanied by only single instruments or small ensembles, and most of the time I could only barely make out the instruments.  Many of the singers are said to be well-known Wagnerian singers, and given what I heard today, I wonder why they are not better known in the US; I do wonder how they would fare in roles such as Brunnhilde, Siegfried, and Parsifal.  Doing it for 90 minutes is not the same as doing it for four hours.

Overall, the orchestra put in a great performance, starting with the overture.  This is one of Strauss’s later operas, but the Playbill speaks of “an entirely different harmonic language … Daphne’s warbling melodies are written mostly in the pentatonic scale, … Other passages deal mainly in the familiar major and minor (‘diatonic’) scales and chords.  Richard Strauss, known earlier as a chord-smasher and wielder of hair-raising dissonances, has left the building, replaced by a humorous and occasionally extravagant painter of pastoral scenes.” All I can say is, “it’s all relative.”  I listened to Daphne closely, and must say if there were any pentatonic passages, they must be “local” and were only a few notes long.  And I distinctly heard the subdominant and leading notes used over and over again.  However, I am sure one can point that out in the music score, it’s just that our eyes are wired differently from our ears (at least mine are.)

This opera was performed with the singers in front of music stands, although they do enter and exit the stage as their lines come on and end.  And it is “choreographed” in such a way that there are at most three soloists at the front of the stage at any given time.  I do wish they put at least some limited action into the performance, as it was I had to fill in many blanks by referring again and again to the synopsis.  For example, a toga (or whatever the Greek gods wore) would add a lot to the scene where Leukippos dressed up as a woman, or he could act “dead” after Apollo shot an arrow through him.  I can imagine some scenes being acted out during some music-only passages, but imagination could take me only so far.

I joined in the thunderous applause afterwards, standing up in appreciation of the great performance, and also to take a few photos with my iPhone.

Curtain Call with Welser-Most on the left.  To his left are Regine Hangler (Daphne), Andreas Schager (Apollo), Norbert Ernst (Leukippos), Nancy Maultsby (Gaea), and Ain Anger (Peneios.) The two ladies in white sang the role of maids.

The New YorkTimes review is very positive, yet the reviewer does find something here and there to critique.  The most brutal is reserved for the opera itself, with the reviewer calling it “not top-tier Strauss.”  Of course I can’t tell; and that is not what the Playbill description would have one to believe.  Also, the reviewer complained that the orchestra was sometimes too loud.  Maybe he had a different seat, my experience was entirely different; or the singers decided to give it their all after reading the review.

I wrote glowingly of the orchestra yesterday, and today’s experience just added to my admiration of the organization.  While I probably won’t move to Cleveland, I am tempted to visit Severance Hall.

I stopped by Ellie’s for a quick dinner, left my car in Jersey City, and left at 6 pm to take PATH into the city.  A series of unfortunate delays (and wrong choice of routes) meant I didn’t get into my seat until 7:29 pm for a 7:30 pm curtain (well, it didn’t start until around 7:40.)  That means I didn’t have time to visit the washroom before the performance, and I had left my house a bit after 4 pm!  Either the opera was mesmerizing, or I was very dehydrated from the heat, I sat through the whole thing without any problems.  It was about 11:30 pm that I got home.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Cleveland Orchestra – Franz Welser-Most, conductor. July 17, 2015.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat GG101, $40.)

Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (“Pastoral”) (1806-08) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphonia domestica, Op. 53 (1902-03) by Strauss (1864-1949).

Due to the birth of our third grandchild, Anne and I are spending most of July in the Boston area.  I came back by myself for a long weekend to take care of various chores at home. Earlier this week I found out from a Goldstar mailing that half-price tickets were on sale for this series of concerts, and bought tickets to two events: Friday and Saturday.  I took the train.

This would be my first exposure to the orchestra and the conductor.  The Cleveland Orchestra has been around for a while (since 1918, says the web) and it’s one of the “Big Five” in the US; before Welser-Most, its conductors were Szell, Boulez, Maazel, and von Dohnanyi.  For me the one known fact about Welser-Most was he recently resigned from the Vienna State Opera due to “artistic differences”; I was surprised that he has been with the Cleveland Orchestra since 2002.

Today’s program is quite interesting.  Beethoven’s was written at the start of the 19th Century, and Strauss’s 20th.  Both can be considered program music, with the composers providing some level of description for what stories the music was trying to tell.  For the five movements of Beethoven’s sixth we have (I) Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country: Allegro ma non troppo; (II) Scene by the brookside: Andante molto mosso; (III) Jolly gathering of country folk: Allegro; (IV) Thunderstorm, Tempest: Allegro; and (V) Shepherd’s Song: Gladsome and thankful feelings after the storm: Allegretto.  Strauss withdrew most of his commentary from the score, possibly due to the embarrassment it may cause.  It was included in today’s Playbill: (I) Introduction and Development of the Main Themes - (i) The husband’s themes: easy-going, dreamy, fiery; (ii) The wife’s themes: lively and free-spirited, grazioso; (iii) The child’s theme: tranquil.  (II) Scherzo – (i) Happiness of the parents, (ii) Childish games, (iii) Cradle song (lullaby), (iv) The clock strikes seven in the evening.  (III) Adagio – (i) Doing and thinking; (ii) Love scene; (iii) Dreams and worries; (iv) The clock strikes seven in the morning.  (IV) Finale – (i) Awakening and merry dispute (double fugue); (ii) Joyous confusion.

Much music has been written about nature and outdoor scenes: for example, many of Debussy’s works (la mer, children’s corner) and Wagner’s (Overture to Flying Dutchman), and of course, Beethoven’s (moonlight sonata, although he didn’t call it by that name.)  This tone poem (I guess Symphonia domestica falls into that category) is unusual in that it describes a day in the life of the composer.  Strauss is not known for his modesty, having written Ein Heldenleben as a tribute to himself at the age of 34; here the music depicts just an ordinary day.

The Pastoral Symphony in and of itself is lovely, and I assume any competent orchestra can make it enjoyable.  However, this one felt definitely different after 20 or so notes (the first phrase has 13 by my count.)  The sound was just gorgeous – we are talking about Avery Fisher without the best acoustics, and a statement was clearly being made.  And the rest of the performance lived up to the promise.  The walk was scenic, the dances were happy, the storms were severe but over quickly, and the birds sang beautifully.  It was by no means a flawless reading, and every now and then some chaos crept in.  I am reminded of Emmanuel Ax’s playing, a slip every now and then does not detract from the overall interpretation of the composition.  During intermission I posted on my Facebook page: odd for a walk in the woods – moving.

A performance that would have made Beethoven proud.

This is the third time I heard Symphonia Domestica.  The description in the Playbill certainly helped, especially illuminating was the description of the three note sequences that denote Strauss and his wife Pauline.  It also paints a rather unflattering picture of her – boisterous, shrewd, whatever, however we don’t need to worry too much as the couple were married for over 50 years.

It is embarrassing that even with all this help, I still couldn’t quite follow the music closely.  Most notably I missed the first time the clocked chimed “seven.”  However, I am sure I got more out of this listening than my previous two.  Not only were the two “themes” (if one could call three-note fragments that) very helping in deciding who was being talked about, many of the melodies, such as they are, came across clearly.  The notes in the Taipei program from last October talks about aunts and uncles, no mention of them here.

This is a large orchestra (I counted nine basses, and New York Philharmonic has eight), and could produce a commensurate volume of sound.  I hope it wasn’t nearly as boisterous in the Strauss household as tonight’s performance would suggest.  However, as an abstract piece of music the loud sound made it enjoyable.

Welser-Most doesn’t seem to believe in the economy of motion.  His arms were carving giant curves all through the program.  Yet he could elicit a soft voice from the orchestra when necessary.  Even though the fourth tier of the auditorium was closed off, and the third tier only had few people sitting in it, the applause afterwards was certainly as enthusiastic as any I have seen.  And when Welser-Most asked the woodwind and brass sections to stand up, perhaps as many as 40 people did.

Curtain call, The Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Most.

The Program Notes in the Playbill is among the best I have seen.  Without using too many words, the annotator Hugh McDonald added a lot of insight into the music and the program.  Indeed if this blog entry is uncharacteristically insightful, it is becauseI borrowed a lot of his ideas.  And, as they say, the “verboseness is all mine.”

It was about 11:30 pm when I got back home.